Autistic people are called out sometimes for being rude. As a community and as individuals many of us find this confusing and hurtful. This happens to some but not all of us. (Throughout this article I use “we” to refer to myself and those autistics who share this experience.) We talk about it in our autistic spaces, our safe spaces. We tend not to understand why or how it happens. We often don’t intend it and we’re not sure how to prevent it.
Despite our differences, there are some common features in autistic communication. And there are commonalities in non-autistic communication. Research shows that autistic people communicate better with other autistic people[i]. It also shows that non-autistic people communicate better with other non-autistic people.
As an Autistic woman, I often prefer autistic communication styles. Autistic people tend to use direct communication. We say what we mean, we get straight to the point, we dive in. Non-autistic people often like to say things indirectly. They seem to drop hints about what they want to say. There’s a hint here. There’s a hint there. There’s another one over there. There’s one outside, one behind the bush, another under the table, and so on. People have to find the clues and gather them together. Then we have to put the pieces together to work out the meaning, like some sort of jigsaw puzzle. This causes me to wonder who has the disability here? Is it those doing the treasure hint-hunt, or the people who get straight to the point and just say what they mean?
In our society, direct-speakers tend to be judged as inferior to hint-droppers, because they are direct. They might accidentally offend someone. So, we assign greater value to non-autistic styles of communication. And we devalue Autistic styles of communication and judge Autistic people as falling short. In the above example, non-autistics judge Autistics as rude for being too direct. But there is a legitimate reason to question this.
Autistic communication tends to value facts as the most important consideration. It expects adults to act like, well, adults, and to not be too easily offended. From an Autistic perspective, the non-autistic tendency to tie oneself up in knots in order not to offend, is pointless and counterproductive. We are certainly mystified by it. What is the point of it? We may see it as a frustrating waste of time, or even despair at the utter futility of it. The expectation then, that Autistic people will conform with non-autistic ways of communicating can be quite costly for us.
I had a realisation about tone recently. I come across as rude sometimes. Surprise! Not all the time. Sometimes I come across as empathetic, kind, loving, and even calm. When I am perceived as rude it can be frustrating though because I am not actually being rude. Or perhaps it makes more sense to say that I am not intending to be rude. The dissonance between my intention and others’ interpretations can be frustrating, but it can also be confusing and hurtful.
Now don’t get me wrong. I can be rude. Sometimes I intend to be rude, I want to be rude, I mean to be rude, and I am rude. Look out, rude lady on board!
I worked out recently, that I can’t HEAR rudeness in those situations when I don’t intend it. Actually, I am unable to discern the tone that sometimes makes me sound rude to others, or arrogant at other times. I can’t hear it before, during, or after. It is completely unintentional. This is the case for very many Autistic people. I want non-autistic people to understand that the perceived rudeness is a misinterpretation. And the misinterpretation is unjust. It is like expecting a person who doesn’t speak Greek to understand Greek. They just can’t. Or expecting a person with a broken leg to take part in running events at the school sports. They just can’t do it. Autistic people can be unaware of whatever it is that non-autistic people hear in that moment. Nothing personal, non-autistics – it’s just how we’re wired.
The point I want to make is that non-autistic people should share the responsibility for miscommunication between autistic and non-autistic people. It is not fair to view us as the ones who fall short by being too direct or being rude. From an autistic perspective we could (and secretly, sometimes do) view non-autistic people as falling short by being too sensitive, too long-winded, or just generally confusing.
There is also a lot to say about the benefits of autistic styles of communicating, of being direct, and of getting straight to the point. But perhaps I will leave that for another article.
Autistic people are already carrying quite a load. 35% of autistic students do not complete year 10 or above. 56% of autistic people report being treated unfairly in education. The unemployment rate is six times higher for autistic people than for people without disability. Autistic adults have a shorter life expectancy and are much more likely to die by suicide than the general population.
So come on non-autistic folks! We need you to step up and share the load. You are probably unaware of how hard most autistic people work to try not to be rude. We may be quite successful at times. But we may also feel that if we let our guards down, if we relax, just for a minute, then wham, one slips through to the keeper! It’s exhausting. If we rankle you, remember that it is unintentional. It’s not personal. Be understanding. Expect the unexpected. And above all, be generous.
I am getting the t-shirt.
Autistic, not rude.
[i] Milton, Damian (2012) On the ontological status of autism: the ‘double empathy problem’. Disability & Society, 27 (6). pp. 883-887. ISSN 0968-7599; Double empathy explained, by Rachel Zamzow, published by Spectrum News, 2021.
 Multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination against autistic women, Australian Autism Alliance 2017
Jackie is a proudly autistic woman and mother of an autistic young adult. She has been an Autism Advisor for 3 years. She is especially interested in autistic identity and culture, autism and education, and autism and employment.